War On Our World

As part of International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict, National Geographic takes a deeper look at the affect war can have on the environment.

The effect war has on the environment is often overlooked, as the human and financial cost of war is so high. And though there is very little research to understand exactly how war has affected the environment, it is evident that water wells are polluted, crops are destroyed, soils poisoned and forests are cut down for the sake of military advantage.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) found that over the last 60 years, 40 percent of internal conflicts have exploited natural resources such timber, diamonds, gold, oil, fertile land and water.

The Vietnam War damaged much of Vietnam’s forest environment. The US was responsible for poisoning the forest canopy to gain in the upper hand in Vietnam, resulting in the destruction of 20,000 square metres of forest, accounting for 20 percent of their entire cover.  It is a military tactic that has since been ruled as a violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Conventional weaponry such as bombs, do not pose a direct threat to surrounding ecosystems. The chemical used in conventional bombs such as ammonium nitrate, ethylene oxide, white phosphorous, and TNT do not travel far after the bomb has exploded. The United Nations found, after studying the war in Bosnia that there was very little evidence of crop and groundwater contamination. The chemicals had become so diluted; there was no immediate danger to the surrounding environment or ecosystem.

However, studies showed that the real affect conventional weapons have on the environment is indirect. When the Royal Air Force blew up a pair of German dams in May 1943, the resulting flood destroyed 7000 acres of farmland, swamped 125 factories and flooded the surrounding coal mines. America used a similar military tactic during the Korean War.

Often desperate political figures attack their own countries and in doing so, devastate the environment. It’s a tactic known as “environmental terrorism”. Perhaps the most well known- case was dictator  Saddam Hussein, who used this tactic during the gulf War, when he set fire to hundreds of oil wells and deposited 11 million barrels of oil into the Gulf. It was classed as the largest oil spill in history. Thick, tacky oil covered the Gulf in such a large quantity that scientists found traces of the oil in ants and lizards almost a decade later.

During the early 1990s, when American and Iraqi soldiers took turns crossing Kuwait, the natural gravel that was holding the soil in place below the surface was ruptured resulting in accelerated erosion adding tenfold to sand dune formation. This ended in a major loss of vegetation affecting native animals in Kuwait.

Animal safety and conservation is threatened during civil wars, especially in countries such as Africa. According to conservationists, war impedes valuable access to the field for park rangers and researchers, leaving animals vulnerable to poachers.

The United Nations is dedicated to ensuring that natural resources that sustain livelihoods and ecosystems are not destroyed. And have since put in place regulations to ensure that ecosystems remains healthy and unaffected by war time.

Lead Image: National Geographic

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